Working in an open organization means learning to give back

Everyone changes lightbulbs in an open organization

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At a previous organization, I had a good relationship with the administration staff. I purchased large amounts of goods, and that staff helped my team with our purchase orders. In turn, we'd help the staff with other tasks—such as changing burnt-out lighting tubes in the office. One day, another member of the organization was visiting when a call for me came in. It was my good friend from the front desk, asking me to help her change one of those lighting tubes.

"Sure," I said, and I explained to our visitor, who was checking her emails, that I would be back in a few moments. I returned to the adjacent office, ladder in hand, and within a few moments we switched out the tube.

A few weeks later, I was on the phone with our visitor's manager. He started joking about the lighting tube incident, but was also seriously questioning why I'd bother getting involved. He insisted that it wasn't my job, that I had more important things to do, that someone else could have handled it. What he failed to see, of course, was the relationship I'd built—and the hours of time that relationship saved me when I had purchase order problems that had to be resolved immediately.

This was just one example of something people in that organization didn't comprehend. But for the past two years, I've worked at an open organization—Red Hat—and I'm surrounded by people who do comprehend that special something.

Associates here do help each other out; we work as a community to achieve our goals. We're not isolated as individuals or teams; we come together as a truly organic workforce, focused on achieving our goals, and we're not afraid to get our hands dirty to help each other when needs arise. That is the power of collaboration. That is the power of an open organization.

I strongly recommend reading Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst's new book, The Open Organization, which discusses Jim's transition from leading a traditional, hierarchical organization (Delta Air Lines) to an open source software company. As I read the book, a smile kept creeping across my face. I've read a few books on similar subjects, but this one is different. I don't know Jim personally, and because I have no real interaction with him on a daily basis, as I read I kept thinking, "Gee where does this guy work again? I want to work there—oh wait, I do!" Cue more grinning.

What was so refreshing for me was the fact that Jim's many thoughts about Red Hat, its culture, its direction, and its strengths were in complete alignment with my own. In other companies at which I've worked, I've always felt a disconnect between the way I view the company and the way senior management sees it. I always found this frustrating, but after two years at Red Hat and one trip through the book, I can honestly say that Red Hat management not only shares my feelings about the company, but also works to guard the things that make it special. This is very powerful.

Sharing with others, collaborating, and working together are what make Red Hat what it is. Our ability to "give back" gives us an edge that many other companies don't have and never want. Truly, the best part of my day occurs when I can click a button and share what I've done with others in my team, my company, and ultimately (and most importantly) the rest of the world. This is what I tell people who ask me "What's the best thing about working at Red Hat?"

The communication, the debates, and the constant drive to excel at what we do is also refreshing. While I was working at a previous company (and was much younger—and probably quite naive), I was in a meeting with the management of the information technology organization, to whom I voiced an opinion about the way a particular project was going. The person in charge of the project wasn't really giving answers, and in my naivety I couldn't understand why. So I pressed further. Instead of receiving answers, I received a subject only email from my boss. It read: "Stop talking ... now!"

He later he told me that I'd done no harm, and that all was well. I apologized profusely for voicing my concerns, but in the back of my head was a little voice that wanted to know why certain topics had been off limits. (Even funnier: when I spoke to a good friend who worked as a manager in Germany, she told me not to worry because, in her words, I was "just like the little puppy that pees on the carpet and everyone laughs and thinks it's cute"—gee, thanks!)

Here's what I love about Red Hat: although the debates do often get heated, though they are passionately fuel-injected, we actually have them! We actually ask, publicly, "why!" Yes, our discussions can be crazy, and sometimes they go off the rails, but the community nearly always swiftly steers them back on track, and we end up in a place where everyone is better off for having them.

One final thought: open organizations like Red Hat understand how important finding one's "sweet spot" can be. I love the fact that if associates are not happy in their roles, then Red Hat does its level best find somewhere for them to be happy. Other organizations can seem entirely uncompromising, like places where people are treated as cookie cutter resources. There, if you're a gingerbread baker who doesn't like baking anymore—well, then, tough cookies (pun intended)!

Being part of an open organization means embracing a certain ethos. Every day, I see people around me embracing that ethos—an ethos that's been part of Red Hat since the company's first days. And it remains something for which I'm truly thankful.

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About the author

Pete Savage - Peter is a passionate Open Source enthusiast who has been promoting and using Open Source products for the last 10 years. He has volunteered in many different areas, starting in the Ubuntu community, before moving off into the realms of audio production and later into writing. Career wise he spent much of his early years managing and building datacenters as a sysadmin, before ending up working for Red Hat as a Principal Quailty Engineer for the CloudForms product. He occasionally pops out a... more about Pete Savage